Domestic Violence Survivors Fighting
for Fair Housing — and Starting to Win
By Justine Calma
On June 25, 2012, Ms. B, who is identified only by her initials in court documents to protect her safety, called 911. Her husband had threatened her with a knife; he told her he would stab her in the back once she fell asleep. He was arrested and charged with multiple misdemeanors, but three days later, he was back at home. According to court documents, he told their nine-month old daughter, “Your mother is going to die,” before threatening to shoot the mother and himself in the head.
Ms. B took her daughter and fled to a domestic violence shelter, where she could stay for up to 180 days before being required to find another place to call home.
“You can bunk up with family or go back to your abuser. Those are choices you have to make when you expire out of the domestic violence shelters,” said Raquel Singh, Executive Director of Voices of Women Organizing Project. Singh’s organization has pushed for years to change public housing policies.
In New York’s costly and competitive housing market, domestic violence survivors can face extra challenges when it comes to finding a safe place to call home. Low-income women often turn to public housing as the only affordable option for a permanent home. Securing a place to live can mean the difference between starting a new life, or continuing to live in fear.
In 2013, the NYPD responded to 280,531 domestic violence incidents, averaging 770 a day. Meanwhile, there are only about 2,000 domestic violence shelter beds in New York City.
Some 31 percent of homeless families in city shelters are homeless because of domestic violence, according to the Department of Planning’s 2010 Consolidated Plan. And research by New Destiny Housing, a nonprofit organization that provides housing and services for domestic violence-affected families, found that 80 percent of domestic violence victims leave shelters with no safe place to go.
“The public attention has largely been ignorant of the needs of homeless survivors of domestic violence,” said Catherine Trapani, Housinglink Director at New Destiny Housing. After years of survivors and advocates pushing for this issue, she said, finally there is traction. Although challenges remain, they are starting to gain ground in their fight for fair housing.
State Sen. Jeffrey D. Klein (D-Bronx and Westchester) introduced a bill this year that would give domestic abuse survivors equal priority when applying for New York City public housing. To determine eligibility for housing, New York City’s Housing Authority ranks applicants based on a priority scale. New York’s Public Housing Authority currently ranks individuals and families coming out of homeless shelters operated by the city as a higher priority than those coming out of domestic violence shelters.
“Without a doubt, homelessness in New York is a growing problem, but giving certain homeless populations priority over others is simply not the answer,” said Klein in a statement. Klein’s bill passed in the Senate in May, and now must pass in the Assembly.
Though the passage of the bill might help some survivors settle into a home faster, not every domestic violence victim can even qualify for priority housing.
Survivors must provide documentation of abuse to apply for priority status, and sometimes having proof of just one abusive episode isn’t enough. Depending on whether the applicant was the victim of a felony crime, survivors may be required to provide up to three separate documents – such as a police report or order of protection – to substantiate abuse.
“The reliance on criminal justice based documentation was a challenge for many survivors. I remain dismayed that they still involve verification from the criminal justice system,” said Trapani. According to Trapani, sometimes it’s more dangerous for victims to call the police. Abusers can become increasingly violent after being arrested and released – something Ms. B experienced firsthand.
Those who lack specific paperwork become ineligible for priority housing, and they can wait for years without being offered a place to live.
Still, a new report in June by City Comptroller Scott Stringer targeting delays in repairs for any vacancies, noted that less than one percent of public housing apartments are vacant.
In 2013, Ms. B and nine other victims of domestic abuse filed a lawsuit against NYCHA for mishandling their public housing applications. The suit alleged that their applications for public housing were wrongly delayed or denied because the housing authority lost documents and entire applications.
Ms. B applied for public housing less than two months after arriving at the domestic violence shelter. She applied for domestic violence priority, and provided the necessary supporting documents – twice. Court documents allege that the housing authority lost record of receiving Ms. B’s supporting documents on two separate occasions and ultimately denied her housing.
Another plaintiff in the lawsuit was approved for domestic violence priority, but after two years of waiting was told that her application was still being processed.
In fact, between 2011 and 2012 the housing authority approved just 11 percent of applications for domestic violence priority, according to records produced in the lawsuit.
Records also showed that some women who received priority status were still waiting up to a decade before being placed in housing.
To be sure, it is not easy for any applicant to get into public housing, where the vacancy rate of apartments was just .61 percent in March. There were 270,201 families on the waiting list for public housing that month.
The city agreed to a settlement last year, leading to reforms in the housing authority’s program for domestic violence survivors. The Housing Authority agreed to streamline the application process and provide receipts whenever supporting documents are submitted. They also created an appeals process for applicants who are denied the priority. “NYCHA has a supportive process for those domestic victims denied priority,” said Housing Authority spokesperson Aja Worthy-Davis.
Elizabeth Munoz was married for 12 years before leaving her husband on July 4, 2002. It would have been her thirteenth anniversary the following month.
She claims her husband had been verbally abusive for years, but she held on. “I was trying to keep the family together and keep their father in their lives,” said Munoz. “I don’t want them to come from a broken home.”
When an argument escalated into physical violence, police arrived at her home and she received an order of protection that prohibited her husband from harassing or abusing her.
Though the relationship was over at that point, Munoz had nowhere to go. Worried about how she would support her kids and not wanting to burden other family members, she continued to live with her husband for months.
When she could take no more, Munoz applied for public housing. She was eventually able to find a one-bedroom apartment to share with her two sons while she waited for her application to be approved. She waited for close to five years. But having a place of her own “was freedom,” Munoz said. And she worried less about the influence her husband had on her two boys. “I’m trying to raise decent, good men,” said Munoz. “It feels good.”
Now she lives in public housing in the Bronx. Although she says it’s not the greatest place to live, rent is affordable. Her two sons, who were six and ten years-old when she left her husband, went to college and want to be a police officer and an EMT.
Justine Calma is a Filipina American writer and multimedia journalist with roots in California and New York. Before joining the Aspiring Writers Mentoring Program she attended Columbia Journalism School and was part of the Toni Stabile investigative reporting program. Justine will be in Boston for the summer as a Global Health Reporting Fellow with The GroundTruthProject and Kaiser Family Foundation. Follow Justine’s journey as a young journalist on Twitter @justcalma
This article is the first in a set by writers in the Aspiring Writers Mentoring Program of the National Writers United Service Organization. It also is posted at a website run by project director Marivir Montebon at http://justcliqit.com/domestic-violence-survivors-fight-for-fair-housing/